Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Rainbow Summits - the Final Climb

In June I chronicled the challenge that Cason Crane set himself to climb all of the highest mountains on 7 continents - the Seven Summits – and become the first openly gay mountaineer to do so. My last post about him was on 30th June when he was half-way up Mount McKinley Denali in Alaska making his 2nd attempt to reach it’s summit and successfully complete his challenge.

Did he make it?

Cason’s expedition (which included Pearl Going, a leading female adventurer from New Zealand) set off on 15th June. The team had a good start and were already making their way from base camp up the Kahiltna Glacier in less than 5 days. Before moving 4½ miles up the glacier to the next camp they went half-way to store some supplies in the snow (called cacheing). This is usual practice on a climb and the reason was that rather than carry all their supplies up at the same time they could cache half at a midway point and take the rest to the camp. They were going to spend a couple of days at the camp, so they could return for the cached supplies later. It also helped to acclimatise the climbers to the altitude (the next camp was at 11,200 feet). As it happens they took an extra day to sort out some other problems before moving higher.

The weather during the climb was certainly more favourable than it was on Cason’s first summit attempt there in 2012. On that occasion the winds were ferocious for much of the climb and several teams had to turn back, including 2 that Cason joined.

The sun, however, can cause its own problems on a mountain. Climbing early in the day (up near the Arctic Circle there’s only a couple of hours darkness at night) meant that the snow is still frozen and less likely to melt and create rockfalls or even avalanches. Cason’s team climbed mostly through the night or early morning from the 11,200 feet camp up to what is called Windy Corner. As it’s name suggests, Windy Corner can be a difficult section to climb in usual Alaskan weather, so it is fortunate that the weather was good.

Having safely negotiated Windy Corner the team ascended along the West Buttress. As they progressed up to High Camp the weather began to deteriorate. They had to wait a day before the snow and wind subsided enough to allow them to climb up to High Camp, which they reached in time for Independence Day, July 4th. Windy Corner lived up to its reputation and strong winds prevented other expeditions from getting past it, either up or down.

Cason’s team then split into several groups. One member had frostbite and was being taken back down the mountain by one of the guides. Fortunately, having climbed to the top of Everest only 6 weeks beforehand Cason’s body was still pretty much acclimatised and was of benefit to him. He joined another small team of 1 climber and 1 guide to make an attempt on the summit. The rest of the team, including Pearl Going, decided to wait for the weather to improve. Pushing through the high winds Cason’s new team made their way out of High Camp.

On 6th July Cason dug his ice pick into the snow on top of Mount McKinley Denali and unfurled his Rainbow Pride flag. After 1½ years (5, if you include his Kilimanjaro climb before his Rainbow Summits project was formed), Cason Crane had become the first openly gay mountaineer to climb all Seven Summits (8, if you include both of the disputed Oceania/Australia peaks). This also meant that the Rainbow flag, in its 35th anniversary year, was flown from the highest point on 5 continents (excludes Kilimanjaro, and Mount Elbrus in Russia).

With his challenge over Cason has raised thousands of dollars for the Trevor Project in support of bully victims. He intends to go to Princeton, but it is certain that his celebrity status will now take up a lot of his time.

Without taking anything away from Cason’s remarkable achievement, I have come across the names of other lgbt mountaineers whose stories and achievements are just as interesting, including the gay mountaineers who were the first to fly the Rainbow Pride flag from the top of one of the Seven Summits in 2005. Their story, and that of the first openly lesbian mountaineer to attempt the Seven Summits, will be included in a series on climbers next year.

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